The Tao of Queen Mary
The Netflix series “The Crown” offers a very interesting bit of applied Daoism, spread across three episodes in Season 1.
It’s always tempting to twist the meaning of this 2,500 year old wisdom classic to fit modern situations it was not mean for, but this time the connection is direct and explicit. The Daodejing was literally written as advice for rulers: the oldest version we have was found in the tomb of the tutor to the prince of Chu, a kingdom that preceded even the 221 BCE creation of China itself. It was a book used specifically to educate future kings.
These lessons begin in episode 4 of the first season, as the very young Queen Elizabeth handles a very tricky chess match against the mighty (but elderly and fading) Winston Churchill.
After scheduling a private meeting to ask him to resign, she finds his political position suddenly strengthened right before his arrival. In response, she quickly and subtly ducks a confrontation by asking his advice on a trivial matter, and gets a personal favor in return.
This impresses Churchill but leaves her with self-doubt, for not taking bolder action. Elizabeth’s wise grandmother, Queen Mary, reassures her by dropping some knowledge that recalls one of the most famous sayings from the Daodejing (Tao Te Ching) — a proverb in chapter 60 that has been quoted by everyone from the poet William Carlos Williams to former U.S. president Ronald Reagan.
Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. That is to say, don’t overdo it.
Whether intentionally or not, Queen Mary’s advice goes deeper into the concept of wu wei — usually translated as “non-action,” but really something closer to “acting without trying so hard” — than even chapter 60 itself does.
Queen Elizabeth: It doesn’t feel right as head of state to do nothing.
Queen Mary: It is exactly right.
Is it? But surely doing nothing is no job at all.
To do nothing is the hardest job of all. And it will take every ounce of energy that you have. To be impartial is not natural, not human. People will always want you to smile, or agree, or frown. And the minute you do, you will have declared a position. A point of view. And that is the one thing as sovereign that you are not entitled to do. The less you do, the less you say, or agree, or smile ….
Or think or feel or breathe or exist …
… the better.
Later, in episode 8, we hear Elizabeth trying to quote back that lesson during an argument with her headstrong sister Princess Margaret, who introduced unwanted drama and personality while filling in for the absent queen during a normally low-key event. But we can see that the young Queen Elizabeth has not fully grasped the subtleties of her lesson.
Princess Margaret: “At least I give them something. You give them nothing”
Queen Elizabeth: “I give them silence.”
M: Silence is nothing.
E: It’s the absence of noise.
M: Emptiness. Blank page.
E: Which allows others to shine.
M: But the monarchy should shine.
E: The monarchy? Yes. But not the monarch. … You showed individuality. And that made people panic.
Sorry, your Highness, that’s not quite it. Wu wei is not just opposing any change or excitement; it’s a deep and frankly inhuman form of royal stillness. You must literally abandon your humanity and embrace the ways “of heaven,” as the Daodejing puts it.
It takes Elizabeth until the last scene of the season one finale to master her role. The queen sits, wordless and still, as she poses for a photo while the photographer lays it on a bit thick, to be honest. But the point is made: the selfless young queen must surrender her individual identity in order to fully embody her nation.